12 Books That Helped My Anxiety And Depression

by Isabel Bryant

Recently, I found myself back in my doctor's office, talking about all the finer points of my anxiety. Again. Was I experiencing déjà vu? I'd certainly been there before. I'd been doing well, managing the feeling over the past few months. But then things got worse again, and there I was, with a mandate to focus on myself again to get better. What could I do, though? I’ve never been one who finds mindfulness practices too great a help — scratch that, I hate that stuff. So instead, I turned to books to help my anxiety and depression.

When I started this route, I searched the Internet for lists of books intended to help sufferers of anxiety and depression, but each one had the same repetitive framework: self-help books, novels about severely mentally ill people, etc. That’s about as much of an escape as Steve McQueen getting stuck in the barbed wire at the last hurdle. So instead, I made my own list.

Over 28 days, I read these 12 books, and revived a part of myself with each of them. I’m sharing these books with you in the order in which I read them. Here I found my own series of escapes from anxiety and depression. I hope, just maybe, that you will, too.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

To kick off my reboot, I delved into the book of the “cool mom,” the founder of the Pawnee Goddesses, and Hillary Clinton herself: Amy Poehler. In previous depressive episodes, I turned to Leslie Knope to make me feel like a "poetic, noble land mermaid," so it was the natural way to begin. Reading her memoir, Amy gave me a new way of thinking, writing: “When the demon starts to slither my way and say bad sh*t about me, I turn around and say, ‘Hey. Cool it. Amy is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.’”

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Now, Lolita was one of the books I’d kept meaning to read and never did. I wanted to read it so I could see a mind gone further than my own (and you can hardly get worse than one of a pedophile and murderer). Mind fog is no fun, but I’d had my fair share of it recently. Lolita blew it all away and opened my eyes with its gorgeous prose, while at the same time making me see my problems more clearly, and not as something to be ashamed of.

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Jill by Philip Larkin

I’ve never been someone who exactly "fits in." when I was five, I would get angry if anyone referred to Claude Monet by only his surname. When I was seven, Louis Braille became one of my idols. And when I was 15, I was the only one in my class who knew who Morrissey was. I mean, yeah, I was totally cool and cultured and badass, but that doesn’t mean much if no one appreciates it with you.

I read Jill for the narrative of a fellow outsider. In the novel, protagonist John Kemp is an outcast with an imaginary sister named Jill. In this book, the outsider is appreciated, and I felt appreciated, too.

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Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wanted to read the book before finally seeing the film — I can only put off watching Leo for so long — but I am so glad I did. In Yates, I have found a new favorite writer. He writes bleakness perfectly, without making you feel worse. Sure, Frank Wheeler is a class-A jerk, and his marriage is one of the least enviable in literature, but this book is depressing in a cathartic way.

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Perfume by Patrick S ü skind

Perfume is not for the lighthearted; this ain't no Chanel No.5. The seediness of this book is addictive. There’s no attempt to make the character’s actions excusable; he is a murdering psychopath (who just happens to make great perfume, no biggie). In a twisted way, this book taught me that it’s OK to give into your own depression on occasion, to wallow when you need to wallow, because it can ease it in the long run. Just don’t go on a murdering spree to do so, because that'll get you arrested. To say the least.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My dad recommended A Visit from the Goon Squad a couple of years back, and in typical child fashion, I nodded my head and didn’t read it … until now. Props to Papa Bryant, because Jennifer Egan can write. The interweaving of narratives in this book is wonderful, the characters cross over seamlessly, and no character is perfect. Just like no one in real life is perfect.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I cannot rave about Station Eleven enough. I've recommended this book to anyone who’s spoken to me in the past month. Regardless of whether or not you're anxious or depressed, just read this, and you’ll thank me later. The book's post-pandemic world, in which 99 percent of the population has been wiped out and the remaining few are fighting for survival, is enthralling, thrilling, and utterly engrossing.

This book was the escape I’d been looking for. Whenever I put it down (only for peeing, drinking, and eating), I felt at a loss, and had to wait a couple of moments to come to the realization that this is the real world, and I am not a survivor of the Georgia Flu.

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

Fey’s book is wonderful for depression and anxiety, because she takes everything with a grain of salt and is able to laugh at herself. I’ve often used sarcasm as a combat or a defense in some way, but not too much for my anxiety — although maybe now, I will. It’s probably a healthier option than turning to pills.

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Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

The follow up to Less Than Zero , Imperial Bedrooms epitomizes hedonistic culture and makes it an art form. Most of what I like about Ellis is the fact that I am so different from his characters that the world he paints seems alien to me. At the time I read this book, I’d been in my house for about three weeks, without moving off the couch for most of it. I escaped through these pages.

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The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Back to Yates. Like I said, he’s my new favorite author. The Easter Parade is almost entirely about women (reading about men all the time can get a little claustrophobic) and it explains the problems they face without prettying them up. Characters in this book face real danger and enter institutions, and it knocked me on the head and reminded me, again, of how much we need other people. (I know, I know. I hate people too, but some people are OK, and they can help you.)

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is legendary. The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a new kind of fireman: one who burns books, which are feared in his society. Reading this didn’t necessarily help my anxiety, but it did remind me why I read — and why I was turning to books for comfort in the first place. I love books; smelling them, holding them, and reading them, of course.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Warning: This book will make you cry. I thought I had a heart of stone until I read Flowers for Algernon. Damn you, Daniel Keyes. No matter what, protagonist Charlie can’t connect to other people, leading him to ask, “Why am I always looking at life through a window?” Reading that was that History Boys moment for me, where a book reaches out and grabs your hand in fellow feeling. Most of all, tracking Charlie Gordon’s rise and fall resonates with my own recovery — mainly the fall, the worry of how far you’ll plummet.

Unlike Charlie, I believe your rock bottom will be just that: the bottom. Soon you will rise again, a phoenix from the ashes, bigger and brighter and better than ever.

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Image: David Salafia/Flickr